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Fantastic brunch at Mistral

I need to hit up Mistral for brunch soon. I've only ever been there for dinner, and based on what I have seen and heard, it is one of the better brunch spots in Boston. Excerpt from my dinner review at http://restaurantbrat.com: A perennial contender for all manner of annual Best of Boston and Magazine/Blog Favorite awards, Mistral is a classic example of a restaurant whose reputation precedes it. And in this case, quite comfortably so, for before I had even ventured forth, the myth of Mistral seemed to surface in almost all my interactions with anyone even remotely familiar with the Boston dining scene. Oftentimes restaurants that attract such press and widespread acknowledgment fail to live up to the hype, so I was pleased to discover that Mistral was just as good in reality as word on the street had billed it to be. It is generally exceedingly rare to discover good cuisine in a setting like Mistral’s – a sleek den for both the fashion and the financier set. Thumping electronic lounge beats pervade the air, and the bar dishes out artful cocktails to gaggles of leggy young professionals in miniskirts and stilettos. Oversized sofas, massive rusted metal wall sculptures, gothic (yet modern) chandeliers – Jamie Mammano’s Provençal-inspired gem is a Temple of Hip, a swath of earth-tones and warmth. The dining room is just as lively, littered with red-faced pinstripes guffawing with a loud backslapping sort of bravado—a band of brothers belonging more to the Canali set than the Cavalli—their platinum concubines sitting flirtatiously astride. An energetic buzz permeates the scene. Mistral, at first glance, feels more South Beach than South End.

Now, do not misunderstand, I have little problem with the setting described above. Just that my expectations then change. You see, I like my party locations glamorous, dark, loud, chaotic and filled with skinny people. I like my food locations rustic, authentic, hearty, and filled with fat people. Thankfully, Mammano’s kitchen churns out dishes that work. Nothing is over-thought here, and I mean that in the most complimentary manner possible. Cuisine that would not be out of place at a traditional dinner in Provence, prepared by a French grandmother who was taught to cook by her own mother, no doubt served in a tiny countryside cottage. Back-to-basics cooking, with a focus on quality. As a result, Mistral’s menu showcases a host of uncomplicated dishes, tasty and hearty; dripping in equal measure with both duck fat and love.

The service at Mistral is impeccable, and servers are appropriately well versed in the menu. Each item is described in loving detail, down to the garnishes and the aftertaste. On a recent visit, I was left with no doubts that our waiter (a balding, skinny middle-aged man with a mild manner and a bit of serial-killer about him) had himself tasted each and every item on the menu (which was itself truly extensive by fine dining standards). Whether this was a function of Jack the Ripper’s mental capacity in keeping current, or the longevity of the menu's constituents is yet to be determined. Sharp-eyed internet users will have noticed that reviews for Mistral dating back five to six years ago extol the virtues of many of the same dishes that grace their menu today. I would like to think this is a good thing – not so much a case of Mammano being outdated as it is one of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I came to Mistral for the French and Mediterranean flavors, but was instead offered Tuna Tartare with Crispy Wontons, Ginger and Soy as the signature appetizer. I could not bring myself to order it. I cannot get my head around why chefs build restaurants around thematic styles of cooking only to undermine their concepts by inserting little incongruent personal indulgences here and there. Tuna Tartare was probably a dish that sold well at Mammano’s other establishments, or maybe it is a personal favorite of his that he felt had to feature here. Either way, it sticks out like a sore thumb on Mistral’s menu, and no matter how good it would have been, is to me unabashedly from a different time and place. I somehow doubt old Provençal peasants were infusing their sushi-grade bluefin chunks with Kikoman. Avoid the cookie cutter and go with those that sound more authentic, for they are the ones which stand out. The Seared Foie Gras with Confit of Duck is a minerally, livery throwback to a time when foie gras was simply animal offal to be savored and not an activist’s wet dream. An entire lobe of liver (measuring a full seven inches across) is balanced atop a hollowed out brioche cylinder, the latter filled to the brim with pulled duck meat. An architectural marvel. It is a magnificent dish, both to look at and to taste, and the creamy liver is the perfect foil to the tender, flavorful shards of preserved duck. The brioche does a good job of sopping up the salty juices from the inevitable carnage on the plate, what with bits of jelly-like foie gras, a canard explosion when the bread container is breached and a generous splash of cherry gastrique to top it all off.

Maine Crab Ravioli is similarly good, if not otherworldly. The seafood used here is fresh and sweet, tasting of summer and the sea, and the pasta dumplings lie in a shallow pool of tomato broth, pleasantly astringent with a hint of thyme. My only complaint: the ravioli themselves. To begin with, four piddly little pieces of ravioli constitute the entire dish, and further, each piece is a little less crab, a little more pasta. If you are reading this, my wee ravioli friends, I know you’ll be able to take this criticism on the chin, for you are thick-skinned as they come. Good thing you taste nice.

Mistral’s selection of main courses are hearty, buttery and the majority would feed a family on their own. Despite the ostensibly Manhattan atmosphere you are confronted with here, the portions are decidedly Middle American diner. One wonders how the Size 0’s that flock here are capable of putting even the slightest of dents in one of Mistral’s supersized entrees. The Half Whole-Roasted Duck arrived majestically on a sizzling-hot plate the size of a road sign; the skin oven-roasted to a delightful crisp, the meat pulling away from the bone with the gentlest of tugs, the mountain of wild mushroom risotto moist and nutty. And after half the plate, a quick breather was needed. My stomach lurching, I had a sip of my wine, took a number of deep breaths, and toweled off the beads of sweat gathering on my brow – I felt like Adam Richman in Man v. Food. Only (thankfully), I had the option of the doggy bag.

If you are feeling in the mood for a greater degree of punishment, try the Red Wine Braised Beef Shortribs. A luscious, hearty French heart attack that is presented to you earnestly by your busboy on what appears to be a medieval skillet the size of a Viking’s shield. The shot ribs are cooked to a tender succulence, and textural contrast is provided by crispy buttermilk onion rings and chunky mirepoix (in this case: carrots, onions, celery) which melt in your mouth with a sweet, comforting evanescence. A dollop of butter whipped potatoes is great as icing on each forkful of stringy beef, and just as good alone – unfortunately the bed of starch is just a little too rich to finish in entirety.

I commend the brave diner who has room for dessert after such a vicious carbohydrate and protein attack. I certainly have not been able to muster the requisite second wind, and always leave with bags of leftovers – duck confit, especially, is great for scrambling with eggs the next morning (especially when you fry up that lovely translucent layer of fat under the skin). Mistral is a very good restaurant, but at times relies a little too much on in-your-face displays of magnitude and overtly cloying richness to blitzkrieg its clientele into submission. That being said, the cuisine here is incredibly tasty and reminds me of a time when fine dining did not necessarily mean bite-sized portions fit for a squirrel, freeze-dried and put through a molecular centrifuge before being folded up like origami and served on a stick. Comfortable, hearty fare should always maintain its relevance in the restaurant scene. And as I found myself sitting amidst dramatic white drapes, basking in the merriment of a convivial crowd and the warm orange aura of Mistral’s dining room, it was not lost on me that such authentic food could indeed co-exist in a sea of douchebags and breast implants. I loved it. Up next, brunch!

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Island Creek Oyster Bar- must eats besides oysters?

I really, really like their seared scallops, massive beasts, juicy and tender. Give their clam chowder a miss, it's not the best rendition I've had. And most of their Fried section is good - try the fish sandwich, its a tour de force. Just reviewed the restaurant at http://restaurantbrat.com, check it out. Truth be told though, I would happily just go there and slurp 30 oysters for a meal. Those things are addictive.

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Island Creek Oyster Bar--best place in the whole world!

Don't know about THE WHOLE WORLD, but I do love ICOB. Boston does have it's fair share of amazing seafood restaurants (B&G and Neptune spring to mind), ICOB fills a bit of a different niche, and with its emphasis on sustainable aquaculture, it is definitely one to check out (and savor). I love that it is such a learning experience - the different varieties, tastes, textures, merroirs.. Amazing. Here is an excerpt from a recent review at http://restaurantbrat.com (as you can tell, I was impressed).

If the sea were a vineyard, oysters would be the wine. A rainbow spectrum of varietals, from the European to the New World, the East Coast to the West; from the small to the large, the mild to the briny – each little oceanic gem a study in taste and context. Good oysters are unparalleled electricity: clean-tasting, with a strong approach and various understated shades of pure and pristine to finish. The sheer diversity of flavors carried by this one mere type of mollusk in its gamut of species is astonishing. I have had in the past oysters that tasted of tropical fruit, and some that have instead evoked floral bouquets. Yet others have tasted like butter, earth and strange concoctions of mineral and metal – unintuitive at first, yet pleasant in moderation. Island Creek Oyster Bar, opened in Fall 2010, is a relatively new entrant to the Boston seafood scene – the upstart in what must be the most saturated section of the restaurant market in a city that cannot seem to get enough. An offshoot of Island Creek Oyster Farm in nearby Duxbury, MA, this restaurant is simultaneously a shrine to seafood and shellfish, and (perhaps more significantly) a guiding light in the movement towards local and sustainable aquaculture.

First impressions are deceptive. I had perhaps expected more of an shabby chic place – a function of my characteristic Manhattan sensibility that immediately assumed anything tagged with “organic” or “locavore” necessarily meant bearded men in skinny jeans and chicks with nose rings kitted out in Anthropologie. Hippie hideout this was not. Instead, the crowd comprised mostly the blazer and designer jeans set, more Nantucket than Nolita. Ladies in cocktail dresses, men with slicked back salt and pepper, mingling with little breathing room at what seemed an absolute sardine tin of a bar. Luckily, the dining room was a bit more spacious, a bit more civilized. Soaring loft ceilings, walls decorated in abstract oystershell craftwork, banquettes filled with pre-nightclub patrons, downing cocktails and shooting bivalves – it struck me that Island Creek Oyster Bar would not have been out of place in Manhattan’s meatpacking District. I (genuinely) am not sure if I mean that as a compliment or not.

The menus at Island Creek are extensive, and complicated to read. Printed on a large sheet of paper and folded into quarters, with print on every alternating surface, it takes a little getting used to. To start, an exploration of the Raw Bar menu. This is compulsory. Going to Island Creek without sampling the oysters would be akin to going to New York Fashion Week and missing the Marc Jacobs show. Make no mistake: they may be petite in size, they may be the first to arrive at the table, and they probably won’t fill you up, but the oysters here are the main event. Island Creek Oyster Bar features an extensive assortment of oysters, including East Coast favorites and their West Coast cousins. Each type of oyster is listed alongside the name of its farmer, a fitting tribute in an establishment where knowing where your food comes from is paramount. Indeed, every single one of Island Creek Oyster Bar’s employees must spend a day at the Duxbury oyster farm, learning about the ins and outs of modern aquaculture. As a result, the serving staff will speak knowledgeably on the subject, and are expertly trained in describing the differences between geographical and genetic varieties. For advanced oyster connoisseurs, they will suggest specific kinds to pair, so as to better highlight contrasting or complementary traits.

On a recent visit, a dozen freshly shucked oysters (six types, in twos) arrived at the table to start. Massive Moonstone Oysters from Point Judith Pond, RI, paired exquisitely with slightly smaller Misty Point Oysters from Pope’s Bay, VA – the former plump and juicy, the latter a paper-thin sliver. Both displayed an intense brininess (but not overpoweringly so), that gave way to a clean, light salt on the aftertaste. Brilliant Kumamoto Oysters from Puget Sound, WA, fat and buttery, were paired with larger Hama Hama Oysters from Lillywaup, WA. Kumamoto Oysters are some of my favorite of all, and these did not disappoint. They were simply extraordinary, tasting of melons with a faint metallic undertone. Each tiny shotgun shell of love lay seductively in its iridescent shell, just begging to slide down my throat. I complied willingly. Blue Pool Oysters, also of Lillywaup, were creamy and complex, as were the absolutely outstanding Shigoku Oysters of Bay Center, WA. As is typical of West Coast oysters, these last two selections were delightfully multifaceted. I tasted cucumber, citrus, a hint of copper and a distinctly algal smoke. Merroir, a term used by oyster aficionados in the manner an oenophile uses terroir (but with “mer”: French for “sea”), has never been more apparent to me. It underlines the importance of the water profile in which an oyster was cultivated; the salinity, the mineral composition, the current, the temperature – it is this which defines the oyster’s taste. Though vastly different in texture and flavor, all of them boasted fantastic finishes, and a lovely, crisp bite. Spoonfuls of mignonette used? Zero. The taste of an oyster is something so subtle, so sensual, so absolutely primal, that I did not—I could not—want to alter the experience. None of them tasted of sand or silt, a problem I have had in the past when ordering at lesser restaurants. I sipped on a flute of champagne in between shots of mollusk, bubbly offsetting the briny. My eyes were closed, my mind drifting away into a sensory overload of the dreamiest kind.

After a round of such spectacular bivalve heaven, it is easy to forget that Island Creek Oyster Bar is more than just that. Get a starter plate of Smoked Trout – orangey-pink and flakey, on a bed of superb walnut pesto. Pile the fish and the decadent, gravelly pesto on a slice of toasted rye; the combination of flavors is at once stunning. Sour and herbaceous notes from the bread, a monster truck of nutty oiliness from the pesto, and a marvelous smokiness from the fish. It is a hodgepodge of strange contrasts that somehow fits together beautifully. A bowl of Local Clam Chowder is less impressive. Watery and bland, I’ve had better in a neighborhood deli. Even buttermilk biscuit chunks aren’t enough to save the sad, rubbery clams and the inordinately tough bacon bits from drowning in the thin broth. A rare misstep in an environment of overall excellence.

Your server will recommend the Seared New Bedford Scallops as an entrée. Take his/her word for it. They are enormous, plump, tender and juicy. Seared to a brown crisp on the outside, snowy white and pure as a virgin on the inside. Sweet potato puree lends a sugary kick to each forkful, and (in keeping with the bivalve theme), crunchy oyster mushrooms provide textural interplay. A fantastic dish. A mere four scallops may seem insignificant, but fear not, these beasts are massive – little brown-and-white rock sculptures on the plate, rivers of puree settling in the canyons between. For fans of more traditional New England style seafood, Island Creek devotes a section of their menu to the breaded and fried. Try a Fried Fish Sandwich – Island Creek’s version is very good. The meat is exceptionally sweet and flaky, the batter is ethereal and light, and the slaw is fresh, cool and crunchy. Old Bay French Fries take the experience up a notch. Tangy and crispy, and served in a tin can lined with discarded print. Like the majority of the preppy crowd, this rendition would not have been out of place in an All-American clam shack in Cape Cod. It tastes of a sunny day at the seaside. A happy-go-lucky slice of summer.

Island Creek Oyster Farm’s commitment to sustainable aquaculture is admirable, and founder Skip Bennett (also co-owner of Island Creek Oyster Bar) has imbued his passion and love for the bounty of the sea in every aspect of the restaurant. It shows in the quality of the food, and is evident in everything else ranging from the expertise of his waitstaff to the creativity of his kitchen. A special mention must go the people behind Island Creek’s stellar drinks list: Co-owner Garrett Harker has vast experience with cocktails (as owner of the neighboring Eastern Standard) and General Manager Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli is one of Boston’s star mixologists, as former bartender at Cragie on Main and also the aforementioned Eastern Standard. Bar Director Jackson Cannon has put together a wonderful selection of artfully crafted cocktails that should keep even the most discerning bar crowd happy. His mastery of classic drinks is apparent – try the Wildwood, a potent tribute to the Sazerac that uses bonded rye, sweet cinnamon and blended bitters with a dash of absinthe. A spectacular drink; I had three. I will certainly be back to Island Creek Oyster Bar to further my crash-course in bivalve appreciation – until such a day when my sleep is no longer haunted by dreams of transcendent Kumamoto beauties, glistening in their pearly half-shells and seducing me with their lustful charms.

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Good Chinese in East 20s

Agree with CalJack, try Jess Bakery. There are some definite misses on the menu (all rice dishes, and soups), but the noodle selection is excellent, and they have dim sum treats like roast pork buns, egg tarts and congee that are very hard to find in the Midtown area... well, anywhere north of Chinatown basicaly. Here is my recent review for http://restaurantbrat.com

Jess Bakery is a neighborhood standout in an area of town where the lousy Chinese restaurants more commonly specialize in dishes like General Douchebag’s Extra-Greasy Moo-Shu Sweet-and-Sour Chow Fun Egg-Drop MSG Wontons. Oh, and also broccoli – always with broccoli. Broccoli everywhere. Broccoli with beef, broccoli with chicken, broccoli in my bloody bubble tea. Quit with the broccoli already. Why must all every meal include broccoli? Why this crazy broccoli infatuation, oh silly Americanized Chinese food brethren? But enough about my disdain for the Panda Expresses of the world. Jess Bakery bucks the trend, with a nice selection of cheaply priced dishes that are difficult to come by outside of Chinatown. Most are a notch up in authenticity and quality than the aforementioned plastic Chinese sludge that proliferates Murray Hill.

Before I had ever stepped foot in Jess Bakery, I was already ordering from the place with such regularity that I was on a first name basis with the lady who picked up the phone. I used to wonder if she was the namesake Jess in question. But then one time I heard a brusque gentleman in the background distinctly refer to her as “EY!!” I knew he was referring to her because she responded with a resounding, “YAHH?!?!” That little exchange satisfied my curiosity. I did in fact finally visit Jess Bakery in person one dark winter night to get a bowl of congee. EY recognized my voice, and I was as impressed with her skill at vocal recognition as I was at the irrefutable proof of the uniquely beautiful and instantly decipherable timbre of my own voice. Physically, Jess Bakery isn’t much to marvel at, a little shack on a gritty street with a few rows of glass pastry display cabinets. This review has to be based on delivery, as that comprises the vast majority of my interactions with the restaurant. These days, phone lady and I are pretty friendly when I dial in. I call her EY, she calls me “AH, IT’S AGAIN YOU! From apattmen 1A… A like ‘Apper’”. It works out well.

It always amazes me how complicated it is to locate a restaurant that serves a simple bowl of congee. Rice and water, it’s not rocket science. Yet Chinese restaurants overlook this humble peasant comfort food with a regularity approaching ignorance. As a result, congee around midtown is a rare commodity (as a simple “Food” search on Menupages or Seamlessweb with a Midtown parameter will testify), and while Jess’s version isn’t the best, it will suffice for hungover mornings on which a trek to Chinatown is simply too arduous. In true Chinese style, the Beef Congee features chewy slices of meat tenderized to the point of near-rubberiness. This isn’t filet mignon, but it will do. The Salty Pork Congee with Century Egg is a decent-enough rendition, studded with translucent, brownish bits of gelatinous preserved egg and a smattering of minced pork chunks. It tastes like home. It tastes like comfort. Not all is 5-star perfection: the texture of Jess Bakery’s congee is sometimes too runny for my liking, and occasionally when you catch them on an off-day the porridge can be a little bland. No big deal, I usually squirt some Sriracha or use a little soy sauce for flavor enhancement when this happens. Truth be told, these irregularities are not a dealbreaker for me, I find it hard to fault something I keep going back to again and again. Perhaps it’s subconscious (and I’ll admit, congee is not everyone’s breakfast dish of choice), but I cannot help myself. Jess Bakery is on my speed-dial, in large part due to the mere presence of congee on the menu.

While on the topic of comfort food, Jess Bakery’s Fried Ramen Noodle selection is also something one would be lucky to find anywhere else. Oodles of supple, starchy goodness, with sweet onions and crunchy celery chunks. The noodles in question are of the college dormroom variety, not of the artisanal hand-pulled sort – but when seasoned that well and topped with such delicious meat, its pure street food gold. I like mine with Soy Sauce Chicken, and appreciate that I can specify white or dark meat when ordering (I always opt for the latter). Again, as with the congee, let’s remember that this isn’t Per Se, and inconsistencies appear here and there. The meat alternates between silky smooth deliciousness on most occasions and, every once in a while, bony chunks of nothingness – a roulette game with smaller stakes. Occasionally I will order the Ramen with Malaysian-Style Curry Chicken, an suitable proxy to the curry chicken of my hometown Singapore. Not as spicy as it is savory, less viscous than Indian curries, yet just as satisfying in flavor. Meat and potatoes with a heady twist. I recently found out the owner of Jess Bakery descends from Malaysia – that explains a lot.

I am a big fan of Jess’s Roast Pork and Roast Duck Flat Noodle Soups, hearty quarts of comfort and warmth, with egg, beansprouts and Chinese cabbage. The soups do not taste like the MSG-laden seawater used at lesser Chinese holes-in-the-wall. They are rich and fatty, cloudy with flavor, with just the right amount of saltiness and a hint of sweetness in the aftertaste from the vegetables. Nothing is overdone here, and a nice noodle to broth ratio is usually maintained. Jess Bakery features roast pork and duck (and soy sauce chicken) in a number of forms, and for the most part, their renditions are superb. Their Roast Pork is tender and just slightly crunchy, in the manner that is unique to pork among meats. Basted to a sexy bright red, the flavor compares well to the best Chinatown has to offer. Aside from the understandably child-sized portion of Roast Pork you would get with your flat noodle soup, order half a pound more (or a whole pound if you must) separately to go with your meal. Avoid the suspiciously named Old Buddy Flat Noodle Soup, a neon orange aberration that tries too hard to be everything at once – unfortunately the ambition is not matched by the execution: the tomato-based soup strangely manages to be both bland and sour at the same time, there isn’t nearly enough shredded chicken in the dish to compensate for the heap of pickled vegetables, and while the dish is branded as spicy, it isn’t. It’s terribly unimpressive.

Skip the rice selections at Jess Bakery and stick to the noodle dishes – I have found the rice dishes (including all the Fried Rice dishes) to be distinctly average; no better than at any dime-a-dozen Chinese takeout joint. Jess has a selection of soups as well, that are probably a pass unless one is absolutely dying for a shot of cornstarch-enriched liquid starch. Hot and Sour Soup is virtually undrinkable (thick, gelatinous, bland) and Egg Drop Soup is bright yellow to look at, and tastes like raw egg going down. Many thanks to the Americanized Chinese food movement for the ubiquity of these nasty dishes.

To accompany your main course, the Pork Dumplings (steamed or pan-fried) at Jess are decent, if not outstanding. The skins are much too thick, and the filling always arrives a little tough (if that is imaginable with what is essentially minced meat). These weaknesses are in part mitigated by a tangy chili vinegar dip, which one would do well to submerge each dumpling in fully, as if conducting a pool baptism. However, the Roast Duck Sandwich is a gem. Each slice of fatty duck is glazed with a delectable hoisin, and paired with crisp lettuce between toasted-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside bread, this dish could feature on the menu of a more stylish, expensive restaurant–say, a Double Crown or a Hurricane Club–with nary a hoot. House Special Hong Kong Toast is similarly tasty, except instead of duck, the sandwich features slices of ham, a decadent fried egg and mayonnaise. It is a delightful spin on the more traditional egg-salad high tea favorite, and really only a smidgen worse for your blood pressure. Each bite oozes unctuous yolk and a strangely comforting briskness from tomato and lettuce – basic and balanced.

Of course, Jess bakery ultimately is a bakery too, so go wild if you are a fan of Chinese pastries and reside (as most of Manhattan does) far from Chinatown. I tend to only order Chinese pastries when I can actually see what I’m getting (written descriptions of Chinese food in English, I’ve learned, are misleading), so I steer clear of some of the more uniquely labelled items (what on earth is a “Dragon Ball”?). The more straightforward items, such as the Roast Pork Bun (Cha Siu Bao) and the Egg Tart (Dan Ta) are solid renditions, if not as fresh as their downtown equivalents – a result, perhaps, of slower turnover.

Jess Bakery has kept me satisfied and happy on many a lazy weekend. It is rare to find Chinese takeout of such quality and authenticity North of Broome Street. Delivery service is exceedingly quick, credit cards are accepted, and when the food arrives, everything is packaged neatly in separate paper bags inside a larger plastic bag. Bubble tea aficionados, fret not, your plastic cup is well taken care of – no spills or leaks to expect here. Quick and easy, convenient and addictive. Maybe I’ll stop by again after work today to check out the selection of baked goods and say hi to EY in person for the second time.

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Feb 19, 2011
restaurantbrat in Manhattan

Near Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers with no reservations

One of my favorite Italian restaurants in the city, Insieme, is at 7th Ave and 51st St, shouldn't be too far away a walk for you. Absolutely fantastic pastas. I think it got a Michelin star a few years back, and was actually voted best lasagna in NYC at one point in 2008 or something. Prices mostly fit your price range. Check it out, you won't be disappointed. Can't speak highly of the place enough.

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Insieme
777 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10019

Feb 15, 2011
restaurantbrat in Manhattan

Primehouse food disappointing

Wow, I have been to Primehouse several times, and have never been disappointed. I think you will find the pastas at I Trulli decent but not spectacular. For the best orcchiette in the neightborhood, go to Bar Stuzzichini. In any case, I'd prefer a dinner at Primehouse over both (to whatever extent you can compare a steakhouse with Italian restaurants - apples and oranges). The crab cakes, I agree, are great. But I only wish your husband had gotten the aged ribeye or the porterhouse instead of the hangar steak. Here, I just reviewed the place at http://restaurantbrat.com, take a look at what I had to say:

Few culinary institutions ooze Americana more than the good old-fashioned steakhouse. While the international community continues to, for the most part, stereotype American cuisine as nothing more than a cheap, tasteless scrapheap of plastic hamburgers and processed hot dogs, this is surely nowadays a misinformed view. There is so much more to love about American dining than just McDonald’s and Burger King. And no, I don’t mean so-called “fancy” tourist traps like Applebees or Red Lobster either. Truth be told, assuming a good quality of the primary ingredient and a solid preparation, I find it hard to believe that anyone who professes to love food (barring those with religious or philosophical reasons) could find fault with a well grilled steak, accompanied by a gut-busting yet requisite assortment of hearty side dishes. A slab of bloody beef, grilled to a sinfully crispy char on the outside, the flesh tender and juicy on the inside, the flavors so powerful and straightforward. The exterior so brusquely majestic, yet one cut of the knife revealing a seductive pink blush. What’s not to like?

Primehouse is unique among New York steakhouses in that operates off a nicely constructed angle. If you have ever pondered how wonderful life could be, look no further than Prime the Bull, Primehouse’s namesake Black Angus love machine. This pampered 2,500 pound lothario cost the BR Guest Group $250,000 at the outset of the concept, and probably spends his days lazing around the free-range pastures at Creekstone Farms in Kentucky, swigging bottles of beer, receiving belly rubs, and generally being the center of attention. His sole purpose in life is to fornicate, as often as he can, and with as many cows as his bullsack can physically handle. Every single one of Primehouse’s steaks is purportedly cut from a descendant of this legendary beast, meaning Prime’s superior genetic quality should be apparent in the texture, marbling and flavor of the meat they serve. As if that were not enough, Primehouse ages its meat on site, in an underground room that at first glance looks more like a grisly wartime bio-nuclear testing chamber. An eerie greenish tint pervades the airtight compartment, and in the background, a faint ruby glow from slabs of 250 million-year-old Himalayan salt blocks illuminate row upon row of pallid meat, each hunk tagged as if a surgical specimen. Not entirely appetizing a sight, but what arrives at the table later on should put all doubts to bed.

Primehouse, like any other steakhouse worth its salt, has a menu comprising four main sections: a raw bar, a selection of classic American appetizers, a list of sides, and the main event: steak. Across numerous visits, I have had the opportunity to sample most of what is on the menu, and there while some of the sideshows are merely so-so, the main event is always fantastic.

While the donut-shaped bread rings Primehouse serves are decent enough, I have found them inconsistent across servings. Some are too salty, others (the skinnier ones) too hard on the inside. Start with a Shellfish Tower if you come with a large party. A selection of seasonal seafood goodies from the New Fulton Fish Market Cooperative at Hunts Point Terminal, this rarely disappoints. Freshness is virtually guaranteed, and among the highlights of this multi-tiered steel and ice behemoth: succulent Maine lobster, sweet Alaskan king crab, massive jumbo shrimp, crisp littleneck clams, a zesty tuna tartare, marinated mussels, and finally, briny East Coast oysters and their complex West Coast cousins. It is a hefty course to begin the meal, and those of mild appetite would do well to choose something else – the steak is more important. However, if you have the room, the Shellfish Tower is a must. For a more manageable bite of the sea, try the Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail. This is no ordinary shrimp cocktail; this is Bubba Gump on steroids. Four prawns the size of cellphones on shaved ice, with cocktail sauce and a mustard aioli. For the size, they are surprisingly crisp to the bite, tender and pristinely flavored on the follow through. Like lobster but lacking the same sweetness.

Primehouse’s appetizer selection is solid if unspectacular. Big Eye Tuna Tartare with Micro Greens & Hijiki Salad is infused with a ginger ponzu sauce that lends the dish a citrusy tang. The tuna meat is tender, but lacking that savory, buttery quality which only really top tuna possesses. Shrimp Dumplings (with wild mushroom in a lobster bisque) are better – my only complaint being the pasta skins used here fall apart too easily, releasing their contents into the broth with the merest of prods. However, I can muster no objections to the Jumbo Lump Crab Cake, a pan fried patty that is simply bursting in flavor. A lusciously well-balanced dish – chunks of crabmeat fall apart in your mouth, the best of the ocean floor, only to leave a heady smokiness in the aftertaste, a kick right at the end provided by a Peruvian Pepper Aioli. One of the better crab cakes I have had in the city.

And of course, the main event: the meat of Prime’s offspring. There are a variety of choices on the menu, ranging in texture from a barely aged Tenderloin to a Ribeye aged for more than two months. The quality of the meat is exceptional, and each steak is grilled just right, imparting a delectable char and a great beefy taste. The classic Filet Mignon is incredibly tender (as all filet mignons should be), and the crunchy, caramelized crust simultaneously salty and peppery. A Porterhouse Steak, dry aged and gargantuan on the plate, is the best of both worlds: a funky sirloin (medium rare and juicy) on one side of the T-bone, and a melt-in-your-mouth tenderloin on the other. There is a lot to be said about the sheer quality of the meat at Primehouse, and none of it bad. A bad day at work is easily cured here – just request the 65-day aged Bone-In Ribeye. This dish is a thing of beauty, a true tour de force: 20 ounces of luscious, fatty, soft, bloody, extremely flavorful goodness. Pair this with a side of Creamed Spinach (very creamy, not for the faint of heart or the calorie counter) or Roasted Brussels Sprouts (studded with bacon bits, and massive in portion), or maybe bottle of Estancia Reserve Meritage (from Paso Robles, let’s keep the American theme going here), and you have an instant remedy for even the most laboriously stressful day. Eat your steak without any of the sauces, it is good enough that you should savor the meat unadorned. If you absolutely must, the Peppercorn sauce is best among the choices (ignore the ketchup).

All in all, Primehouse is an excellent steakhouse, one that rivals traditional heavyweights like Del Frisco’s and Strip House. It is not quite in the ultimate echelon of a Peter Luger yet, but still top class. It does have a few filler items on the menu (who orders chicken or salmon at a steakhouse?), but these are pretty par for the course at other steakhouses as well, and you cannot fault them for at least trying to cater to diverse tastes. Special mention must go to the dessert menu at Primehouse – portions of which are, for lack of a better phrase, mindblowingly massive. The Slice of Prime, a brick-sized chocolate cake comprising what seems like twenty layers of interchanging sponge and fudge but which only advertises seven, is a good choice if you have room for, well, a brick. It is incomprehensibly dense, unbelievably smooth, and with a forkful of the accompanying malt crunch ice cream, tastes absolutely divine. I swallowed each spoonful without even chewing. As long as Prime the Bull stays alive and continues knocking up his harem of bovine beauties, as long as his sons continue to yield meat of this caliber, I will continue to return.

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Feb 15, 2011
restaurantbrat in Manhattan

Time for a pasta binge - who's the best?

Sifton is absolutely correct, Novita has a very good pasta menu, and it's worth a visit. Here's my review. Full version at http://restaurantbrat.com

As the Batalis and Whites of the world continue to furiously expand their haute-Italian empires at lightning pace, and amidst the sudden awakening in public awareness towards the simple pleasures of traditional Italian fare, let us not lose sight of those who came prior. New York City has always been somewhat a mecca for Italian cuisine, and long before the trend towards the locally sourced, the rise of the organic movement, there has always existed, scattered among the hip artisanal newcomers and lavish Meatpacking palazzos, a solid core of neighborhood Italian restaurants committed to traditional, home-style cooking. Novita, a Flatiron District staple, is such an establishment. Here, Chef Marco Fregonese displays a dedication to the hearty, the warm and the authentic that oozes in equal measure old-world charm and a modern sophistication.

The dining room at Novita could be described as romantic – dim yellow hues cast by half-lit sconces envelop each table, and the service is efficient and discreet, never getting in the way of conversation. It could also be described to a certain extent as corporate, a function of the dinnertime crowd more than the restaurant itself. Power suits and stilettos seem to be the attire of choice, and the crowd here is a far cry from the beard and plaid set at more fashionable downtown restaurants. Instead, you are more likely to encounter a sea of salt and pepper hair and floral shawls. Midday, it tends to be more of a mixed bag: a couple of brunchaholic stalwarts, a few tables of elderly Italian regulars, and a smattering of young professionals who live in the neighboring Gramercy area. Sidewalk seating is popular when the weather gets warmer. The food quality remains mostly good no matter the season.

The selection of starters at Novita is extensive, and there are a number of highlights. They serve a fantastic Funghi Ripieni: discs of breaded, fried shiitake mushrooms, stuffed with bits of shrimp and scallions. They taste earthy and sweet, with a crispy exterior and a soft, mealy interior. Each cross-section is a kaleidoscope of colors and textures, each bite-sized piece an airy, fragrant treat. Novita’s list of daily specials usually showcases one or two standouts, ask your server for an opinion – in my experience the waitstaff is knowledgeable, and usually relatively candid (in an endearingly Italian way). On a recent visit, a monstrous portion of Insalata di Polpo proved quite tasty. Tender pieces of steamed octopus meat, a molehill-sized heap of mixed greens, and a zesty dressing – a lovely balanced achieved. I have had my fair share of poorly cooked octopus, the firmness of the meat ranging the gamut between rubbery latex and mushy potatoes at either extreme of the spectrum. Novita’s octopus is cooked superbly, the chunks of faint purple tentacles tender and juicy – akin in consistency to a medium-done tenderloin steak. Lovely. It is also hard to go wrong with Novita’s Carpaccio di Manzo con Tartufi Neri, a delicious spread of melt-in-your-mouth Kobe beef with crisp arugula, a shaving of Parmigiano and decadent black truffles. With constituent ingredients of such quality, raw is the best way to go.

The pasta dishes at Novita are very good, if not up to the otherworldly standards of newer places such as Michael White’s Osteria Morini and (formerly Michael White’s) Convivio. The various pasta types I have sampled here all display a calculated thickness and a distinct chewiness that seem more a reflection of the Chef’s style than a purposeful slight to the predilection displayed by most diners nowadays for al dente. Chef Fregonese has an endearing fixation on making his pastas larger than life. A dish of Seafood Calamarata al Nero di Seppia features massive, inky black rings of pasta. Any bigger and a chihuahua could do the hula with these. They taste gorgeous – briny like the sea, and chewy in the most unobtrusive way possible. Covered in a thin layer of savory, Cioppino-esque sauce, with a generous topping of equally sized tomato chunks (sweet) and shrimp bits (juicy), this dish is a winner. Similarly, Rigatoni con Tonno flaunts a mountain of mammoth-sized pasta, each tube of rigatoni large enough to serve as a sleeping bag for a small hamster. One bite isn’t enough to down each starchy beast, two could be a stretch; three is appropriate if you are on a date and want to avoid looking like a slobbering glutton with bad etiquette. Slices of seared Yellowfin tuna the size of Ritz crackers top the dish off, soft and smoky, among a heady meadow of chopped olive bits. The olives can at times overpower the subtle flavor of the tuna, but to what extent depends on how balanced the manner you pack each forkful. Spaghetti con Vongole is passable – a little too salty, a little too oily, but the dish is saved by the sheer flavorsome freshness of pristine manila clams and the comforting sharpness of garlic (a condiment that in my opinion takes most dishes up a notch). Orecchiette con Salsiccia Piccante, a classic Southern Italian dish of ear-shaped pasta, spicy sausage and broccoli rabe, is a letdown, overly rich to the point of buttery, sickly saturation. The pasta is rough and heavy without the right amount of resistance with each chew, and I have certainly had better renditions elsewhere, including just down the street at Bar Stuzzichini. A rare misstep in what is otherwise a very good pasta menu.

Novita is a cozy little gem in an area of town untouched by the superficialities of the often faddy New York City restaurant scene. It maintains a loyal following, among both city dwellers and dedicated suburban pilgrims, largely due to its down to earth style of cooking and unpretentious environment. Don’t expect fireworks at Novita, but do make a reservation in advance and look forward to honest, homely cuisine served with a glass of house red and a smile.

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Feb 12, 2011
restaurantbrat in Manhattan

Will be attending NYU in fall and need some good, cheap eats, comrades!

Welcome to New York. Get yourself acquainted with Crif Dogs quick. Some of the best (and most creative) hot dogs in the city, they're all you'll need for your drunken freshman year late-night snack attacks.

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Crif Dogs
113 St Marks Pl, New York, NY 10009

Feb 07, 2011
restaurantbrat in Manhattan

Tasting Menu at Mahattan restaurants

Degustation is excellent. Counter seating and an innovative menu of tasty tapas. Or, my all-time favorite, the omakase at Sushi of Gari. Piece after piece of the most creative, succulent, delicious sushi you've ever tasted in your life. Salmon with Baked Tomato, Tuna with Tofu Puree, Blowtorched Cod with Miso Paste, Toro with Pickled Radish, Diced Eel with Avocado... each one better than the last. It doesn't stop until you tell the chef you can't physically move any longer. $125 will probably get you around 10-12 pieces each, without sake or drinks. Worth every penny.

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Feb 07, 2011
restaurantbrat in Manhattan

HELP!!!! need a restaurant reco for a large group!

La Esquina, you can contact the reservations department and they have a great private section for parties of your size. The food is very good, try the tortilla soup and anything they have that is grilled. Atmosphere is fun, not stuffy, lots of pretty people. A little pricey, if you care about that, but worth it.

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La Esquina
106 Kenmare St, New York, NY 10012

Feb 07, 2011
restaurantbrat in Manhattan

Defining food experiences in Singapore

Fried Carrot Cake at Heng's at Newtown Circus, my deathrow meal. Luscious, soft, white pillows of turnip cake, fried with shrimp, egg, chye poh (preserved vegetables) and topped with a heap of scallions. Absolutely a must-try. Forget the haute restaurants, Singapore is all about the hawker food.

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The decline and demise of professional food writing?

No, you are absolutely right. The omission of CH wasn't intentional. I'm still fairly new to these boards, so CH didn't immediately pop into my mind, but you make a very valid point. Having said that, CH at least is a forum, where two-way discussion takes place (as evidenced by your post in reply to mine). Most of these other sites that I highlighted simply present opinions without a real platform for dissent save for a "like" button.

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Raw / Vegetarian

A bit out of left field, and your friend ain't gonna care anyways, but raw chicken... why not? I had an amazing dinner at Tori Shin a few weeks ago, and one the highlights on the menu was Tori Wasa, which is basically chicken sashimi.. Apart from a few accidental episodes at DIY barbeque joints, it was my virgin experience with raw chicken. The meat, paired with a spicy yuzu jalapeno paste and chopped scallions, was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. Buttery and mild, tender and soft, these pink slices of pristine poultry could almost have passed for raw fish, so similar was the texture. But the taste, though subtle, was unmistakably chicken. A lovely introduction to the full meal of other chicken parts to come (which is why your friend probably wouldn't care) – but it was fantastic. The essence of the bird captured elegantly without any chemical alteration; a gentle reminder of the way Nature intended her sustenance to taste.

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Feb 07, 2011
restaurantbrat in Manhattan

Unusual cuisine in Midtown?

Bali Nusa Indah on 9th Ave between 45th and 46th is a great little Indonesian joint. Not many of those in Manhattan. Really fantastic otak-otak (BBQ fishcake in pandan leaves), Sop Buntut Blora (oxtail soup, hearty, delicious) and Kari Ayam (curry chicken). Their beef rendang, cooked in a medley of fragrant spices, is tremendous. And their mee (noodle) and nasi (rice) dishes are relatively authentic.

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Bali Nusa Indah
651 9th Ave, New York, NY 10036

Feb 07, 2011
restaurantbrat in Manhattan

food blogs

Here in NYC, we have a number of really good ones... my two favorites are Midtown Lunch (http://www.midtownlunch.com: indispensable tool for the midtown office worker) and Grub Street (http://newyork.grubstreet.com: NYMag's gossip/recommendation/goings-on column, a daily must-read). Both websites are restaurant-focused: Midtown Lunch is great at uncovering hidden gems, and Grub Street keeps me up to date on the daily goings on in the food scene - including restaurant openings/closings, food celebrity activity and the like.

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The decline and demise of professional food writing?

It's not just publications and blogs, but I think part of the problem stems from the rise of websites like Yelp and Citysearch, which rely on adjudication by volume. These sites have become inordinately popular, and unfortunately, will remain so in the forseeable future. They index a wider array of restaurants than any newspaper columnist ever can, and are simply easier to access. A professional food critic churns out at most one review a week or so. And so we see the trend in casual, thoughtless reviewing, often from people who don't really care about their credibility or fairness as reviewers. It is exceedingly easy to slam a restaurant from the comfort of your couch knowing that there will be absolutely no ramifications for you afterwards. So what if John D. on Yelp hated a particular restaurant after one particularly bad visit? He doesn't go back again and to give it a second chance; the benefit of doubt. Professionals would. They're required to. Readers of Yelp rely on the collective verdict, not just John D.'s. This is one of the biggest differences between the casual internet reviewer and the professional food critic, outside of the requisite writing talent. I think the democratization of food culture in general is a good thing, but one of the sad side effects of this movement is this uptick in faceless reviewing. I mean, look at the proliferation of these sites: Yelp, Citysearch, Urbanspoon, Foodist Colony... even sites which ostensibly perform a different purpose, like Opentable (reservations) and Menupages (online menus) have little sections for user reviews. One to two lines of bad grammar and unreliable bile. Bah, such is the world we live in, I guess. Sad but true.

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First Date, East Village, Degustation?

Euzkadi might be a good shot... cozy, warm, and good Basque-style tapas. Sangria is great there, and the atmosphere is definitely romantic.

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Euzkadi
108 East 4th Street, New York, NY 10003

Feb 05, 2011
restaurantbrat in Manhattan

Cha-An Tea House: An Oasis of Calm in this Concrete Jungle

weird, i typed in cha-an in the search box and nothing came up.. save for a mention of cha-an in "Innovation: the CHOW Tour"... and now I guess my post too... new to this board...

actually.. i just found out what happened.. i didn't have the right timeframe setting, i was searching only within the past 12 months... silly me... although i suppose since nobody's mentioned it for a year, i'll just bump it.

Feb 05, 2011
restaurantbrat in Manhattan

Momofuku Fried Chicken Dinner

I'm not too sure how to answer your last question because by all accounts, you are right. They did offer to replace the chicken. They did apologize. And they did take stuff off the bill. I suppose it was more the manner that the event unfolded that surprised us. First of all, offering to replace bloody chicken with more chicken is psychologically like having a terrible masseuse offer to give you another massage to make up for a bad one. You already had a bad experience, the last thing you want is more of the same. The apologies that were coming from the staff were a little half hearted, we felt. And lastly, the item they took off the bill was worth $9 (pork buns). The uncooked fried chicken dinner was worth $100. And we had to ASK them to take something off the bill.

In any case, I hate discussing stuff like that because I hate the awkwardness of expecting something in return for a bad meal. I would personally probably not have brought the blood up to the staff, because I just don't like causing a scene. But we had some aggressive people in our group who insisted. Oh well, I let them do their thing, and documented the activity afterwards.

To answer your question simply: what I expected the restaurant to do was not screw up the fried chicken to begin with. That expectation went unfulfilled. Sigh.

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Feb 05, 2011
restaurantbrat in Manhattan

Cha-An Tea House: An Oasis of Calm in this Concrete Jungle

OK, so I just looked through Chowhound, and cannot believe there are no Manhattan Board posts on this fabulous little tea shop in the East Village. I believe it deserves a shout out. Here's my review of the gem. For full review, with photos: http://restaurantbrat.com

As a general rule I am much more a coffee person than a tea person. In my mind, an expertly brewed mug of dark-roast java is perhaps one of life’s simplest yet most indulgent pleasures. I have my daily fix sans the sugar and milk, black as the night – a potent, earthy broth with a pungent aroma capable of revitalizing even the most languid morning grouch. I like my caffeine to growl, punch me in the face, and corrode my tonsils. I’ll sometimes punish my stomach lining in this manner up to four times a day. Tea, on the other hand, is a different beast altogether. I will succumb to a zesty cup of chai every once in a while, or perhaps a numbingly spicy teh halia (Singaporean ginger tea), but for the most part, tea in my mind often seems a bland drink devoid of any attitude.

I suppose I can be partial to extreme behavior. To each his own. I do, however, understand how to appreciate subtlety on occasion, especially when it comes to food and beverage. The Japanese, for instance, have made an art out of simplicity, and their fresh, pure cuisine is a testament to the premise of ascetic fulfillment. On a recent visit to Cha-An Tea House for brunch, I was reintroduced to tea, and saw firsthand a beverage disarmingly shy, stripped down to but unobtrusive flavors and faint bouquets. The tea was the highlight here, but a special mention must go to the food as well: devoid of avant-garde presentations or unexpected twists; just uncomplicated dishes prepared with the freshest ingredients that showcased a respect for tradition and the simple yet spiritual act of nourishment.

Lo and behold! A pot of hot water magically transformed into Flower Craft Green Tea, as a modest pair of tightly spun bulbs blossomed into a joyous peacock watercolor before our eyes. A potpourri of faded greens, pinks and creams, the tea was as beautiful to look at as it was to taste. A whiff of jasmine, a fleeting touch of chrysanthemum, each sip was teasingly delicate and supremely balanced. A second pot, this time of a white tea mysteriously named the Yinzhen Silver Needle, was just as exquisite, but with a more distinct body. I sniffed at it and sipped it, I rolled it around my tongue, and tried to chew it. I treated my cup as though Yinzhen Silver Needle was in fact Napa Silver Oak, and it must have subliminally returned the favor, as I fell into a dreamy, otherworldly stupor, entirely relaxed and utterly content.

I snapped out of it only when the food arrived. Cha-An offers a number of good lunch options, and in my temporal state of languorousness and comfort, I had opted for an order of porridge, to be brought with what our server described as a daily rotation of six Japanese mini-appetizers. The porridge was thick, starchy and absolutely tasteless – and yet, all facetiousness aside, absolutely delightful. It was just what I needed. The light purple grains of Japanese rice lent a nice viscosity to the bowl, and the porridge could not have been more suitable as a platform for the bolder tasting accompanying side dishes. Of the six, savory Curried Squid Rings and tart Pickled Mustard Greens with Sesame were winners. I paid less attention to a thimble of Pickled Radish (slimy with yam extract) and the Grated Salmon (baked, and just a little dry for my liking).

My dining companion had ordered the rice set, which featured a dry version of my purple rice porridge, and a number of different, meatier accompanying dishes. Noteworthy among those that I sampled included the Soymilk Quiche with Mushrooms and Scallions, and the Shiso Chicken. The former had the texture of silky artisanal tofu in the middle and a crisp crust on the outside, and the latter featured tender chunks of dark meat paired with a coy kiss of mint. There was a salad with a tea-smoked salmon topping that I did not try, but which looked fairly decent. Among the sides in the rice set, I probably enjoyed the Curried Eggplant with String Beans the least. The oversized aubergine chunks were soggy and did not pair as well with the mild curry sauce as the squid from my porridge set.

I was pleased to discover that Cha-An’s dessert menu was very good indeed. A Cappuccino Sponge Roll with Strawberries was fluffy and delicious, as was a Japanese Coffee Choux Crème. I am not normally a big dessert person, but both of these were anorexically light, and I found myself inadvertently especially enjoying the latter, a cream puff of absolutely phenomenal quality, possessing just the right amount of coffee flavor to satisfy this perpetual java-addict.

Cha-An Tea House is a tiny, cluttered, one-of-a-kind tribute to all that is good about the Art of Tea. An oasis of calm on the second floor of a nondescript shophouse; a serene sanctuary of reflection and appreciation. I am nowhere near understanding the complex yet profoundly uncomplicated meaning behind a simple pot of tea, and accordingly am miles away from the status of my tea connoisseur friends. You won’t find me forsaking my morning coffee anytime soon, and my penchant for exaggeration will probably persist. Ultimately though, I guess every lesson counts. I will be back to Cha-An to try some of their daily lunch specials (Unagi Hitsumabushi-don, a Saturday and Sunday occurence, looked particularly good on the menu), and to continue my lesson in the surprising strength of the subdued.

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Cha-An
230 E 9th St, New York, NY 10003

Feb 05, 2011
restaurantbrat in Manhattan

Momofuku Fried Chicken Dinner

OP, if you have no idea what to expect, let's put it simply: don't go for the ramen or the chicken (really), go for the pork buns and the foie gras. Here's my review of the place. For the full review, with pictures: http://restaurantbrat.com. Hope this helps.

For the most part, David Chang is a chef after my own heart – a foul-mouthed, headstrong cavalier who plants a firm kick in the nuts of the traditional culinary hierarchy and longstanding restaurateur norms. Just as I have extolled the virtues of the talented (and beautiful) Anne Hathaway to scores of eye-rolling non-believers from her admittedly cheesy Disney days all the way to her richly-deserved Oscar nomination, it’s always satisfying to follow the path of a chef from modest neighborhood staple to James Beard Award Winner. In Chang’s case, this rise to prominence was just a lot more sudden than anyone could have predicted. These days, he presides over a Manhattan empire that includes the original Momofuku Noodle Bar, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Momofuku Milk Bar, Má Pêche, and the two-Michelin Starred Momofuku Ko. While I have eaten at all of his restaurants on several occasions, the last time I had dined at the Noodle Bar was in 2008. Since then, a ramen revolution of sorts has gripped New Yorkers, and with the sheer influx of new options, I simply felt no urge to revisit this once trailblazing flagship.

Naturally, that all changed when Momofuku Noodle Bar introduced their Fried Chicken Dinner. Now, anyone who knows me recognizes that I have a crippling weakness for fried chicken – to the extent that my yet-to-be-defined answer to the time-honored Death Row Meal question would almost certainly include a 10-Piece Bucket in the list of contenders. On the surface, Chang’s idea sounded like a home run. The last of his set dinner ideas (a whole slow-roasted pork butt at the Ssäm Bar) was Momofuk’in amazing, and had accordingly been the toast of town. This time, he would serve up two whole birds, one deep-fried Southern Style and the other triple-fried with a spicy glaze Korean Style. Accompanied by an arsenal of dips and condiments, this was surely to be a decadent, artery-clogging feast. Or so it sounded.

We were seated promptly at a large table on uncomfortable stools, with no backrests to hang our outerwear and no coat check service at the front of house. A bit of an inconvenience, given snowflakes the size of small dogs were bludgeoning the pavement outside and we were padded in all sorts of unwieldy winter apparel. I ended up with my coat on my lap for the entire duration of dinner and through the evening my scarf fell to the floor as often as Cristiano Ronaldo. Right off the bat, we downed a round of Lychee and Yuzu Soju Slushies. They were glacial, tart and tangy; juxtaposition in a plastic cup, these frosty cocktails were icy like the arctic yet tasted of the tropics. Pity they barely contained any alcohol. The chicken dinner would not have been sufficient to feed our ravenous group of nine, and so a selection of small plates was ordered to tame our appetites before the main event.

A starter plate of Foie Gras Terrine with chickpeas and a candied tangerine was salty and creamy, the intensely pungent flavor of the luscious pâté balanced nicely with sharp, citric acidity from the orange. We tore into the dish, and it was gone in a matter of minutes, so we did what we had to: we ordered another foie gras dish, this time a lovely roasted lobe with almonds, mushrooms and sweet pear. A light brown sear wrapped the delicate liver, and the fragrant combination of musky and bitter flavors resulted in an aromatic, sensual detonation in my mouth. It’s exceedingly hard to go wrong with foie gras.

It’s equally as hard to go wrong if you order Momofuku Noodle Bar’s trademark Pork Buns. These standard bearers of fatty goodness have been consistently terrific over the years, and on this day they were no different, each little masterpiece consisting a slab of mouthwateringly sinful pork belly sandwiched in a pillowy-soft steamed bun. Each piece of belly was about 80% unctuous, unadulterated, buttery fat, packed full of divine, porky flavor. Little slices of sour pickles and a sprig of fresh cilantro took the dish to the next level. Incredible. The next course, of char-broiled Yellowtail Collar, had a lot to live up to. And while it was a decent enough rendition, with a tasty caramelized crust and flaky, sweet flesh, it was not particularly outstanding. And the limp accompanying salad was a pointless afterthought on the plate.

A bowl of Momofuku Ramen arrived next, and was sorely disappointing. While the chewy, springy texture of the noodles stayed true to my memory, the broth was salty as the Dead Sea, and possessed a faint, off-putting urine undertone characteristic of stale bamboo. A wedge of overcooked pork floated lazily on the surface. Newer places like Ippudo and Minca have taken ramen to heights previously unimagined in this city – Momofuku, despite maybe even being the restaurant that kickstarted the entire NYC ramen craze, has been left behind in the dirt. A side of hearty roasted Brussels Sprouts went some way to ridding my palate of the ramen aftertaste, but even then, they paled in comparison to the brussels sprouts at other NY institutions like Alta. And while texturally, I rather liked the way crunchy bits of apple interacted with the sprouts, I felt the use of bonito flakes in the dish was unnecessary and created an odd flavor profile.

And with that, the chicken arrived. A manhole sized plate piled a foot high with a mountain of deep fried poultry parts, one half golden brown and the other fiery red. Along with the chicken arrived mu shu pancakes, a bowl of garden fresh vegetables and a variety of sauces – ample tools to construct the perfect greasy chicken wrap. I sat for a full minute and gazed at the mound of crispy, steamy sex, my mouth agape and my eyes wide with lust. Then, I reached in for a southern-style thigh and bit in. I was instantly brought back to Earth. Underwhelming would be the most apt description here. The buttermilk and Old Bay batter was tasty enough, but one of the most crucial components to successful fried chicken, the skin, was quite simply not crispy enough. The meat was fairly tender, and flavored well – this was, at the end of the day, still fried chicken, and I stripped it to the bone. I had a Korean style drumstick next, and my vision of an immaculate Bonchon heaven was dismantled completely when after my first two bites, I was horrified to discover that the flesh near the bone was bloody red and completely raw. I was stunned into silence, until I looked around the table and found a sea of equally horrified faces surrounding me. As it turns out, around five of the twelve or so pieces of fried chicken we had dug into thus far had been undercooked, still dripping at their cores with blood. And this wasn’t sashimi-grade Blue Foot poultry, either. Who knew what was going on here?

Our complaints were listened to compassionately by our server, who seemed totally unfazed by the situation, as though this were a common occurrence. She apologized and offered to bring out a few more pieces of chicken, which we politely declined, as by this point we were too full from half-cooked chicken anyway and probably too dizzy from salmonella to eat any more dubious drumsticks. The Pork Buns, worth $9, were comp’ed on the bill as a gesture, but nothing else was offered up except the aforementioned apology (out of courtesy more than anything). A meal which had until then been quite decent was instantly transformed into an awkward, strange situation about which nobody seemed to know what to do. We paid and left, more confused and disappointed than truly angry.

Some say David Chang is all hype. Others claim him to be the second coming of God. I love the man for what he stands for in the regimented world of food, but despite my admiration for his swashbuckling style, it will take a long time for me to forget this incident. Even barring the blood, the pieces of chicken that were cooked thoroughly were less tasty than Popeye’s, less crispy than Bonchon’s. Sorry Dave, but you have every right to do whatever the hell you want if whatever the hell you want tastes good. In this case, it just didn’t.

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Momofuku Noodle Bar
171 1st Ave, New York, NY 10003

Feb 05, 2011
restaurantbrat in Manhattan

Restaurant Brat review of Osteria Morini - Pasta Heaven

For full review, with photos: http://restaurantbrat.com

Michael White looks like a gangly lumberjack, a large, statuesque man whose frame is tempered with a slight hunch and a goofy grin. His face looks weathered and his eyes a little tired, but he seems happy—satisfied even—and there is a curious youthfulness in his smile. In the realm of the city’s top Italian chefs, he is perhaps the first that springs to mind, yet comes across nothing like the part. He looks like a Budweiser guy, the type who chugs a few cans and then smokes a pack of Marlboro Reds, the kind who sports baggy plaids and working-class denim on his time off. On this day he wears a heavy gray winter coat and a tweed duckbill cap, and carries a few paper bags of produce from the Sunday Greenmarket. As he strides into the dining room of Osteria Morini, there is a subtle yet certain air of suspense. Patrons stiffen and whisper excitedly to one another while trying not to point or stare. The wait staff smile and bustle about with a noticeably renewed vigor. They part like the Red Sea as he makes his way to the kitchen, and every few tables, diners rise to slap him on the back and exchange greetings. Several shake his hand, in that firm, sincere, two-handed manner that conveys a genuine respect and that always seems to be accompanied by a tilt of the head, prolonged eye-contact and hushed compliments. Right before Chef White enters the kitchen, he whips off his pub cap to reveal a floppy, orange-red center-part that a boyband frontman from the 90’s would be proud of. And then he is gone. The startled, star-struck dining room returns to its lively hum, and diners go back to sipping their wine and twirling their pasta. Such was a surreal highlight in our recent meal (of surreal quality) at Osteria Morini.

I think it is safe to say I am a fan of Michael White. I had one of my most memorable meals of 2010 at Convivio, and had previously also been highly impressed by Alto and Marea. 2011 was to prove a year of change for the Altamarea Group, parent company for White’s stable of restaurants. Barely a month into the year, White is no longer involved at Convivio, the result of an unfortunate split with his business partner Chris Cannon – a sad turn of events that seems sure to affect the overall quality and feel of one of my favorite Italian eateries in the city. He has also relinquished influence at Alto, but keeps in his lineup Marea and also Altamarea’s newest restaurants, Ai Fiori and Osteria Morini. A weekend brunch at the latter, opened a mere three months so ago, was eagerly anticipated, if only to remind me of the exceptional genius that pervaded every aspect of that singularly magnificent meal at Convivio.

Osteria Morini is a lot more casual than White’s other establishments, and less pricey as well. The rustic dining room is bathed in a warm orange glow, and vintage black-and-white prints adorn the brick walls alongside tarnished copper cookware. The air is alive with chatter and a welcoming buzz. Each of White’s restaurants adopts a thematic approach, and while Marea focuses on seafood and Convivio was a temple to the food of South Italy, Morini’s shines its spotlight on the cuisine of the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy, an area famous for its fresh pastas and rich meat sauces. Our table of twelve (including Comrades in Food the Yaokuis) ordered a selection of antipasti and entrée plates to be shared, but we decided that each of us would choose a pasta dish to be savored individually – based on previous experience with White’s pastas, this was really more common sense than extravagance.

Starter salads of Mare and Porchetta were both good, if unspectacular. The former, an Adriatic style seafood salad with shrimp, squid tentacles, and scallops on a bed of shaved celery and onions, was a mixed bag – I felt the shrimp were not quite as crisp as they could have been, but instead texturally rough. The scallops were fantastic, though, little chopped pieces of succulent love that were fresh and sweet with all the goodness of the ocean. The plate also featured briny, smashed olives, which accentuated the seafood flavors, and provided a pleasant sharpness that paired well with my lunchtime Sazerac. In comparison, the Porchetta salad was much more consistent, and tasty to boot. Featuring a fatty, luscious carpaccio of roasted pork with a heady, intense flavor, this dish was a textural treat, with cold radish and bitter arugula adding definition and crunch to the slices of salty, cured meat. I tasted lemon, rosemary and love.

Small plates of Polpettine—prosciutto and mortadella meatballs—arrived next, slathered generously with a bright red tomato sauce and sprinkled with parmesan. The small, spherical marvels were buttery and soft, with just the right amount of give in every bite. The sweet-sour tang of tomato blended well with the salty, fragrant cheese, to create a perfect coat of flavors for the meatballs. Comfort food at its simplest, and yet at its finest. The next course, of Spanish Mackerel, was just as delicious, but in a completely different way – this was instead a complex dish of contrasting tastes and textures. The mackerel filet was impeccably grilled, with a seared, crispy skin and substantial, meaty flesh. Lying sensually atop a deep purple bed of radicchio and topped with a salsa of capers and carrots, the fish was infused with the zest of lemon and bore the aroma of a lazy summertime beachfront barbeque. A very good dish, indeed.

Chef White’s spin on the classic steak and eggs breakfast was next, in the form of a homely Bistecca plate. Medium-rare strips of skirt steak with home fries and a single fried egg; the combination much more delightful than the meat-and-potatoes label would suggest. The beef was tender and beautiful, aged to perfection and seared with a mouthwatering char. I could have taken down a full bull myself, even without mushroom sauce. Only complaint: I would have preferred my egg a touch less cooked through, so that the yolk remained runny. Osteria Morini’s was a hardened, gelatinous amber casino chip – not the best rendition that I’ve had. Strange how a restaurant can cook the most intricate of dishes flawlessly, but can overlook a simple fried egg. A similarly humble meat that is often neglected for more fashionable cuts these days is chicken, and Osteria Morini’s Pollo was immaculate. Two legs roasted a sublime bronze on each plate, wrapped in heavenly crisp skin; the meat as pristine and bright as fresh bedsheets – juicy, supple, and thoroughly amazing, with a faint sweetness from a red wine reduction.

And then, out of nowhere, they came. Plates of manna sent from Pasta Heaven, lovely heaps of steamy, golden perfection, the work of a brilliant culinary mastermind. My plate of Tagliatelle lived up to all the hype, and suffice to say, even for one as predisposed to the dramatic as myself, it was a profoundly indulgent experience. The noodle ribbons were chewy and starchy, with a glorious al dente texture. The sauce of ragú all’antica was light in construct yet boldly possessing a distinct meaty character, with beef, pork and veal all seemingly present. Delicate flakes of Parmigiano-Reggiano added a depth to the dish, and bound all the elements together in an explosion of wonderful sensuality. I had a taste of one of my dining companions’ Gramigna, handmade yellow and green macaroni with pork sausage. The pasta was even more al dente here, ostensibly to provide a firmer platform for this heavier dish – the purposeful intent displayed here took me aback, and gave me a deeper respect for Michael White and his mastery of pasta.

Sitting at the table behind us was Marc Forgione, himself a respected chef and Kitchen Stadium’s latest deity. As he, too, casually lunched on Osteria Morini’s pasta, I found myself thinking, whom am I to disagree? I will be back to Osteria Morini, and often. The next time I may skip the starters and just get two plates of pasta instead.

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Osteria Morini
218 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10012

Feb 04, 2011
restaurantbrat in Manhattan

Terakawa Ramen

For full review, with photos: http://restaurantbrat.com

The New York food scene is a faddy sort of thing. Our avaricious eyes shift from gourmet fried chicken to Korean tacos to designer bánh mi to full-on pork feasts with roughly the same regularity as Paris Hilton’s wardrobe malfunctions. We switch allegiances between farmhouse chic, underground speakeasy and warehouse-style ethnic megamart every few weeks. It’s a dizzying ride for the uninitiated, but for those of us who appreciate our staples and the comfort of at least some stability in culinary trends, it’s nice to know that certain things are here to stay. I’m no food historian, but in my estimation, the rise of ramen in New York began about three or four years ago, kickstarted in equal measure by a young David Chang and a downturn in the economy that had diners scrambling to find cheap alternatives to the lavish pre-mortgage-crisis restaurant scene. Ramen had always been around, of course, but more in a supporting role to the big hitters of the Japanese culinary movement in New York – the Michelin-starred sushi palaces and the fashionable izakayas. It was only when Chang opened his flagship Momofuku (now known as Momofuku Noodle Bar) that the food community really started buzzing about ramen and the craze took off. There was something inherently sensible about a casual, no-frills noodle joint that appealed to the newly acquired attitude of frugality in the city, and thankfully, the movement shows no signs of abating.

Terakawa is the new kid on the block, opened about a year and a half ago on a tree-lined sidestreet in a space formerly occupied by a dingy Teriyaki Boy. A fatty, porky Godsend in a starved neighborhood screaming out for a dose of hearty noodle soup. An oasis of thick, garlicky holy water, quenching the thirst of ravenous ramen pilgrims and simultaneously converting non-believers to the cause. I have dined at Terakawa consistently since it has opened, and have tried a wide variety of options on the menu. Some dishes are better than others, but nothing I have eaten there has been particularly bad. It’s no five-star dining experience, but you can certainly do far worse. For starters, the soup used in their namesake Terakawa Ramen is one of the better tonkotsu broths in the city.

If it’s your first time here, that is exactly what I would recommend you order. Stare in amazement at the wonder that is the golden-gray, thick-as-syrup pork broth. The product of a two-day-long lard and pork bone simmer, it is cloudy like the winter and so saturated with fat and astoundingly rich that you cannot afford to leave it alone for a few seconds or the surface starts to clot. Close your eyes and inhale deeply as the sweet steam from the piping hot soup washes over your being and hypnotizes your senses. Then divert your eyes back to the bowl and observe as the glistening globules of pearly fat floating on the milky surface bob up and down like little jewels of love. Sprinkle liberally with Terakawa’s toasted garlic bits (one of my favorite things about the restaurant – each tiny fried pebble is a burst of heady intoxication), grate some sesame seeds over the bowl, and then dig in. Shreds of crunchy black fungus, slivers of ginger a candy-floss pink, a delicious soy-infused hard boiled egg, and a tender sheet of fatty pork add depth and flavor. A fistful of scallions deliver a pungent kick. The hand-pulled noodles are made in-house – they have a great texture, smooth with the right amount of bite.

These days I often go for the Shoyu Ramen, a lighter dish, with a soy-sauce based broth. What I like about this alternative rendition are the squiggly noodles, which are different from the silky, straight variety they use in the Terakawa bowl – they are slightly more al dente, springier to chew, and while not “better” per se, provide a firmer platform for the soup. Bamboo shoots, a generous heap of chopped scallions and a few slices of soft fishcake finish the dish. It goes down with a clean aftertaste, and despite the saltiness of the clear, deep-brown broth, it never overwhelms the overall balance of flavors. Of the three basic ramen choices on the menu, I have never tried the Miso Ramen, simply because I have never felt the urge to amidst my staples.

There is also a rotating, seasonal menu, where current winter standouts include the Tan Tan Ramen, an innovative Japanese take on traditional Sichuan Dan Dan Noodles. A spicy miso-sesame soup base, a layer of minced pork, crisp beansprouts – absolutely delicious. They have a decent selection of cold ramen in the summertime as well, if that is your thing (it isn’t mine). To accompany your bowl of noodles, Terakawa does a delectable Cha-Han (Fried Rice), which is better than anything the numerous cheap Americanized Chinese dumps in the neighborhood can muster. The dish has a wonderful aftertaste, a combination of char and smoke that is only achieved by what the Chinese call wok hei (literally: The Breath of a Wok), a unique technique that requires great wok-handling skill and rigorously precise application of cooking temperature. I was suitably surprised to find fried rice of such superior quality at a ramen house – a lovely rendition, with bits of roast pork, egg, scallions and iridescent strips of pink fishcake. There is an entire menu of ever-changing izakaya-style small plates, too, among which Takoyaki balls (grilled octopus in batter) feature. Not the best I’ve had, but Takoyaki, a popular Osaka street food, is so hard to come by in NYC that they will do just fine; savory mayonnaise-slatered balls that seem to come to life with a topping of wriggling bonito flakes.

Terakawa’s handmade Gyoza are a popular menu item as well, and are an ever-present at most of the tables in the restaurant. Filled with pork and herbs, they come in batches of five, with a simple soy dipping sauce. Nothing groundbreaking, but still, a staple side of little dumplings that are consistently tasty. All five pieces are fried together at once, which can sometimes result in their delicate skins sticking together and tearing apart upon handling – not the best presentation I have ever encountered. I once went to Terakawa on a Sunday and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was Gyoza Special day: $1.50 for a plate of five. We had a party of four, and ordered a plate each: a fantastic deal.

I have often eyed other ramen choices on the menu on previous visits, but have thus far not been able to resist the familiar comfort of the Terakawa and Shoyu ramen bowls. I will eventually get around to tasting the Ma-Yu Ramen, a new(-ish) addition to the menu, which looks and sounds like a winner: Pork soup topped with a layer of roasted, black garlic oil. Sounds like good upon good. Terakawa is no Ippudo (but to be fair, Ippudo is kind of in a league of its own in Manhattan), but this NYC outpost of a Kumamoto favorite certainly holds its own among a loyal clientele of happy Gramercy-area noodle lovers. Long live the Ramen Revolution!

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Terakawa Ramen
18 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10010

Feb 04, 2011
restaurantbrat in Manhattan